In the complex world of cannabis, buying a product based solely on its THC percentage might seem like a smart choice. After all, the higher the THC, the stronger the high, right? If one is 30% and the other is 18%, then the 30% is a better deal and more bang for your buck, right? Well, not exactly.
Consumers are often being lied to and the whole industry is paying the price. I know I'm not going to change some people's minds and there seems to be an ego tied to buying based on THC like, "I have such a high tolerance, I can only get high if it's over x percent" or "I'm flushing my money down the toilet if it's less than x percent". My goal is to educate those who want to listen so that you can spend your hard-earned money wisely, avoid the scams and hopefully help change the industry for the better.
Let's dive into the science and unveil the truths about THC and what savvy cannabis consumers should consider.
Understanding THC: THC is what gets you high. It's the compound responsible for the plant's psychoactive effects. But here's the catch: THC isn't evenly distributed throughout the plant. It's mostly found just in the trichome heads, those tiny, bulbous structures that shimmer on cannabis buds.
Why does this matter? It's impossible to have an entire cannabis flower consisting of 100% trichome heads. The vast majority of any bud will be composed of leaf, calyx, and other green plant material. This fundamental fact sets an upper limit on THC content. The biological limits on THC production mean that ~35% total THC by dry weight is a rough upper limit for strains. On average, high-THC strains contain ~18-20% total THC, while the more potent strains will contain ~25-30% total THC. You should almost never see a strain with more than 35% total THC by dry weight. Be skeptical if you do. Most balanced strains will tend to have CBD and THC levels in the neighborhood of ~6-12%. But you should never see a strain with 30% THC and 10% CBD, or one with 30% of both. The biology of THC and CBD production prevents this.
Degradation: Put simply - As weed ages, THC turns into something else that doesn't produce that high (CBN). Unlike some substances (like alcohol) that maintain their potency over time, it's highly susceptible to degradation and light and oxygen play the biggest role in THC loss. Some estimate that you will have an average of 3-5% decrease of THC each month. For your cannabis to stay potent, proper storage is essential. The ideal conditions? An airtight container, away from direct light (amber glass is a champion here) and kept around 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Freezing trichomes is a no-no; they become brittle and can easily fall off. So, remember that when considering that THC percentage on the label, it's subject to change.
PRO TIP: Ask for the harvest date! Flower testing at 25% 9 months ago is going to be much lower than 25% tested last month. Too fresh may also be harsh since it hasn't had time to cure, so this is a balance. Also, pay attention to how the dispensary is storing their products. Is it warm in the dispensary? Are the jars sitting in direct sunlight? In Oregon, deli-style storage can be challenging since jars are opened dozens of times a day, exposing the product to light and oxygen.
The Non-Homogeneous Nature of Plants: Cannabis plants are far from uniform. A bud at the top of the plant will have different characteristics than one at the bottom. Size, light exposure, and many other factors influence trichome production. Just like alcohol, where each batch from a vat can be consistent, cannabis is a natural product, and variations within strains are expected. It's not a homogenous substance tested from a single source; it's individual buds. Laboratories test only a small sample, usually a few grams out of 50+ pounds and it's not like a vat of alcohol where everything is homogenized. The lab random samples and homogenizes for testing to get an average, but you're not buying a homogenized blend, you are buying singular buds so they will have variance.
PRO TIP: Typically, larger buds will test higher because they are exposed to the most amount of light. UV light is a stressor for the plant, and it will produce more trichomes as a defense mechanism against the UV rays.
Testing and Fraud: Here's the ugly truth... Farmers and labs sometimes engage in questionable practices to boost THC percentages. This has been well documented. Here's just one example from a study that was done looking at potency. The average observed THC potency was 23.1% lower than the lowest label reported values and 35.6% lower than the highest label reported values. Overall, ~70% of the samples were more than 15% lower than the THC potency numbers reported on the label, with three samples having only one half of the reported maximum THC potency. Here's another example of a lawsuit in California over THC inflation. Labs have been caught inflating test results to retain business by either changing numbers, drying out the weed or adjusting dilution or extraction volume subsample weights or messing with instrument calibration and farms have been known to take the kief from their most potent strain and put that on all the other strains on just the buds that are being sampled. Everyone in the industry is incentivized to have the highest THC product because you are able to get more money from it because customers perceive higher THC as better. Period. If customers stopped shopping just based on THC alone, then there wouldn't be as much of an incentive to lie.
PRO TIP: Remain vigilant about inflated THC percentages. If you see something over 30%, be suspicious! Also, if they don't test for terpenes, it may mean that everything is just coated in the same strain's kief, so they don't want to expose that.
Genetics: Genetics play a critical role in a strain's potential potency. While some old-school strains have always tested below 20%, sudden spikes in their THC percentages to nearly 30% are certainly eyebrow-raising. These inconsistencies should make consumers question what's behind the numbers. Growers have also stopped growing many of the great strains we had back in the day. This is due to a lot of factors, but a big one is that the consumer stopped wanting anything under 20% THC because of this THC inflation issue.
PRO TIP: Again, high percentages on old school strains is most certainly a lie! Check out my other post on the Fast Flavors trend for more insight here.
Entourage Effect: this is the idea that the full spectrum of the cannabis plant works best together – the interaction between all of the compounds from a cannabis plant, such as phytocannabinoids and terpenes, come together to enhance their effects. Sadly, plants producing high levels of THC are incapable of producing much CBD and terpenes since these compounds all compete for space in the trichome, so you're losing out on the benefits of the entourage effect. I've known many users that say how potent and medicinally beneficial a 18% THC and 10% CBD strain was compared to a 28% THC was. So even if the results are legit, a lower testing strain can feel more potent due to the entourage effect.
PRO TIP: look for terpene percentages, CBD numbers or anything else that's not just THC.
The Impact of Trimming: The art of trimming plays a substantial role in the final THC percentage of a bud. The worst scenario is machine trimming, which can beat up and shake off trichomes. Even manual handling during trimming can affect THC content like using screens to sort sizes. A too close of a trim job where they "shave" the bud and over handle/over manicure is going to result in a massive loss of trichomes. Note - Testing occurs after trimming, but like the last point, they are not testing every bud, only a small sample.
PRO TIP:If you can try and find out how a farm trims and stores the flower that's a bonus, but also take a good look at the flower. Does it look beat up? Is the trim job too close? For example, our farm trims everything directly off the branch without touching the bud and then it's immediately placed in glass jars. Our trimmers are trained to trim with precision and take their time.
What are the regulators doing: For the first time ever, the OLCC is starting to audit flower potency. I've heard that anything above 30% is subject to a retest and they can audit at the dispensary or the farm. They are taking flower off the shelf and running it through 4 different labs and take the average. If the average is different, then it must be relabeled. This is still not solving the issue entirely and has its issues, but it's a start in the right direction.
In conclusion, focusing solely on THC percentage when buying cannabis is an oversimplified approach that can lead to disappointment. I've heard of many customers saying "I smoked this 35% flower that only got me high for 10min" or "made me cough my lungs out" because it wasn't cured right. 20% seems to be that magic number. It's really unfortunate that if something tests below 20%, it's basically the kiss of death and generally is super difficult to sell even if everything about the flower is phenomenal and you get super stoned off it. Customers just have to have a cutoff in their head about what they'll take a chance on. As a savvy consumer, consider factors beyond THC content, such as aroma, flavor, and the overall effect you seek. Get to know the farms that you're buying from. Typically, farms will be pretty set in their ways about how to grow and process their flower so the product you get should be fairly consistent.
I also think that this is leading to more and more users switching to powerful concentrates since they are either building a tolerance to flower as the shelves are only getting filled with the most potent strains or think they are because they buy a 35% strain that was a blatant lie and it doesn't get them stoned. Not everyone wants to get stoned out of our mind off one toke. To me, I treat cannabis more like buying a wine. People don't shop based on alcohol percentage, instead, they look at grape varietal, farm, year, etc.
The trajectory of the cannabis industry has been influenced heavily by the emphasis placed on THC levels. It's regrettable that from the outset, regulations honed in on THC as the predominant indicator of value. In the days of medical use and pre-legalization, THC levels were seldom, if ever, a concern. This singular focus might even be indirectly bolstering the black market, as they understand that THC isn't the sole measure of cannabis quality. Some argue that listing THC is essential for consumer guidance, but I firmly believe that the essence of cannabis cannot be distilled into a single percentage. Instead of narrowing their view, consumers should be encouraged to explore and experiment to find strains that resonate with their needs. An alternative could be to highlight the most abundant terpenes and consider capping the listed THC values at 20-24%, offering a more holistic perspective of the product.